Tricia Rojo Bushnell was on hold with the prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri, waiting to talk to Leonard “Raheem” Taylor. Executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, Rojo Bushnell was calling to update Taylor on litigation related to his execution, which was scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Taylor had been in a holding cell, the prison official told Rojo Bushnell, but now she couldn’t get through. Rojo Bushnell could hear someone talking in the background just before the prison official came back on the line “and said, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am. It’s done.’ And I said, ‘Done?’ And she said yes. And I clarified, ‘You mean the execution process is done?’ And she said yes.”
Rojo Bushnell was sitting in a Huddle House diner down the street from the prison. She’d been there all day with Megan Crane, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s Missouri office, working on Taylor’s case. Rojo Bushnell realized that as she was waiting on hold, the execution was already underway. At 6:16 p.m. Taylor was pronounced dead.
Taylor was executed for the 2004 murder of his girlfriend, Angela Rowe, and her three young children in Jennings, a suburb of St. Louis. Taylor had always maintained his innocence. He was nearly 2,000 miles away when the bodies were found inside the home he shared with Rowe, shot in the head. Police seized on Taylor as their sole suspect, pursuing witnesses to confirm their theory of the crime while ignoring evidence to the contrary. At Taylor’s trial, the prosecution relied on a dubious statement provided by Taylor’s brother, Perry — a statement Perry had vociferously recanted — and on testimony from a medical examiner who dramatically changed his estimated time of death in order to implicate Taylor.
Despite lingering questions over Taylor’s guilt, his innocence claim was never fully investigated nor considered by any court. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell declined to avail himself of a Missouri law that allows prosecutors to reopen possible wrongful convictions, saying there were no facts “to support a credible claim of innocence” in Taylor’s case. The office maintained its stance even as Taylor’s daughter, Deja, flew to St. Louis days before the execution to share crucial information supporting her father’s alibi, which could have confirmed that the victims were still alive several days after Taylor had left the state.
“They know that people have other avenues to vindicate their rights, but it doesn’t matter to them.”
As Taylor’s execution loomed, attorneys sought to stop it, asking Gov. Mike Parson to convene a Board of Inquiry: an independent panel tasked with vetting Taylor’s innocence claim. The governor declined to do so. As it became clear the execution would likely proceed, attorneys learned that the state was denying Taylor’s request to have a spiritual adviser and two witnesses, Rojo Bushnell and Crane, present during the execution.
After the Missouri Supreme Court and the federal district court in St. Louis declined to intervene, Rojo Bushnell and Crane were sitting in the diner working on an appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court. Rojo Bushnell was calling to tell Taylor about the appeal when she was informed that it was too late.
It is not the first time that Missouri has executed a person in the face of a compelling claim of innocence, nor is it the first time the state has executed someone while litigation was still pending. “I think that’s something we were all thinking about,” Rojo Bushnell said. “They know that people are continuing to litigate; they know that people have other avenues to vindicate their rights, but it doesn’t matter to them.”
During her last visit with Taylor on Tuesday morning, Rojo Bushnell talked to him about his love of music. His favorite song, he told her, was The O’Jays’ “Family Reunion.” Rojo Bushnell and Crane listened to the song as they drove from Bonne Terre back to St. Louis after the execution. Taylor, a devout Muslim, “accepted his fate, that whatever was Allah’s will was Allah’s will,” Rojo Bushnell said. “He was positive up to the last time I talked to him.”
Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty held rallies in support of Taylor across the state on Tuesday, from Kansas City to Bonne Terre. “One day the truth will be uncovered, and Raheem Taylor will be vindicated and posthumously exonerated,” the organization’s co-director Michelle Smith said.
“This is an undeniable and irreversible injustice,” Crane said. “But in the words of Raheem, he will ‘live eternally in the hearts of family and friends.’”